Her talents drive her life. She works full time at the hospital day care center, coaches two youth hockey teams and plays three instruments - alto sax, bass clarinet and some drums. But she's not sure she would have realized those talents if she hadn't been placed in the care of the Vineyard Haven foster family that eventually adopted her.
"We came from a family of six and we were all separated and we went through several different foster homes before we came here," 23-year-old Chrissy McCarthy said. "My twin sister and I were in another foster home off-Island together and then they found the foster home here on the Island that took three of us together."
She and Charley were four and their brother John was six when they came to Shirley McCarthy's home. Shirley adopted them after the children's mother gave up her parental rights about a year later.
"I don't think we would get this far without her help at all," Miss McCarthy said. "I went to college and I wouldn't have done that."
She looks forward to being a foster parent herself one day, but in the meantime she enjoys spending time at the house of her godmother, Alexi Wildanger, who with her husband Erik has had seven foster children in the past four years, in addition to their four biological children.
"There are a lot more children these days than when I was in it," Miss McCarthy said. "The Island and Massachusetts and all over the U.S. needs a lot more foster parents," she added.
This sentiment is echoed by the Department of Social Services' Cape and Islands office, which is actively recruiting families and raising awareness about the placement needs of foster children of all ages, including infants.
To that end, a casual luncheon and information session is planned for Wednesday afternoon at the home of an Island foster family. The session will be an opportunity for people interested in or curious about foster parenting to meet experienced foster parents and ask questions.
Whenever possible, the department tries to keep Island children in foster homes on the Vineyard. They also try to keep Wampanoag children in the tribe, although presently there is only one tribe member who is a foster parent.
Cape Cod children are often placed in Island homes as well. Most foster placements on the Island are child specific, meaning the foster parent knows the child and may or may not be related. Of the 14 foster children presently on the Island, nine have child-specific placements.
Eight foster families on the Island are trained to take general placements from DSS. If three or more families are interested in becoming foster parents, a family resource worker at the Cape and Islands DSS office will hold a training course on the Island. The course typically meets once a week for eight weeks, for a total of 28 hours.
"It's a pretty awesome feeling being able to open my heart and know this kid is in a situation I was in, and know I'm helping him or her," Miss McCarthy said of spending time with foster children at Mrs. Wildanger's home. "I would tell anyone to do it. There's just such a huge shortage of foster parents all over. From where I was, I definitely do know how important it is."
Mrs. Wildanger became interested in foster parenting because of her own godmother - Shirley McCarthy - whom she lived next door to for many years. Between her biological children, the day care she ran, foster parenting and the five children she adopted, Shirley said she has cared for 265 children.
"I've been around it my whole life - I just wanted to do it," said Mrs. Wildanger, whose biological children are aged two and a half, 9, 12 and 15. "I'm not saying that having five kids isn't crazy sometimes, but it's a good crazy."
Although social service workers say the ideal outcome is to reunite the child with his or her parents, it can be bittersweet when a foster child leaves the home, Mrs. Wildanger said. "When the baby left, it was really hard on them," she said of her children's reaction when the two-year-old foster child they had been taking care of for over a year was adopted by family members. "They're super. If it was not bearable for them, I would not be able to do it. But they're older."
The foster children that have stayed with the Wildangers have come from the Vineyard and off-Island. "There's just not a lot of foster families all around, and there are not a lot of foster families on the Island that are taking kids right now," Mrs. Wildanger said. "There's high need - I want to stress that."
Island foster parent Ruth Major grew up with foster siblings in addition to her five biological brothers and sisters. "I became a foster parent because my mother had been a foster parent, so I knew what it was to have siblings come into the house that weren't necessarily biological - and yet the family just bonds and they become a part of the family," she said. "We still have a relationship with one of the kids that my mother had."
Since 1985, Ms. Major has had 13 foster children live with her. They stayed for as short as one night and as long as 10 years. A foster child she adopted at five years of age is now 28, living on the Cape with a family of her own. Ms. Major is the child development teacher at the regional high school and plans to retire at the end of the year, although she will continue working in early education, she said.
As a working, single foster mother, Ms. Major knows that it's possible to be a foster parent and work full-time. "Sometimes it's a juggling act, but I have to say the community is extremely supportive," Ms. Major said. Day care centers, social workers, doctors, employers - many people have moved their schedules around to accommodate her. "It really is a community - especially here on Martha's Vineyard - it's definitely a communal kind of caretaking that goes on."
Ultimately, it's dedication and attitude that make a good foster parent, she said.
"If you're patient, kind, really supportive and very nurturing, I think that you would probably make a good foster parent," Ms. Major said. "I think what I would want prospective foster parents to know is that - you know, I've been a teacher, I've run businesses, I've done many different types of work in my life - but the most important work I've done in my life is the one-on-one work I've done with foster children. It's the most important work you can do."
The luncheon for prospective foster parents will be held Wednesday, Dec. 6 from 12 to 4 p.m. at a private home in Oak Bluffs. Bring a friend who is interested in foster care and a snack to share. Children are welcome and current foster families are also encouraged to attend. For information and directions, call Leona Bombaci at Department of Social Services at 800-352-0712, extension 50228.